Monthly Archives: September 2015

Pretty Girls, Karin Slaughter

downloadLast week I read a Lee Child book. I was really disappointed. It did nothing for me and I found myself losing concentration. It could have been me … it could’ve been the book. I can’t say for sure. I just know that it didn’t grab me.

So, imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a new Karin Slaughter at the Library and literally drowned in the gripping furor of this unbelievable book. Slaughter had me from the first page. I couldn’t get enough of this book, of the complex relationship between characters, the psychosis and then the varied and unexpected twists as the narrative progressed.

If you are after a thoroughly gripping thriller, then this is one that won’t disappoint!!

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No Stars at the Circus, Mary Finn


9781406347333It is August, 1942 and Jonas Alber is ten years old. It is hard to write a review about a book that begins with such a beautiful narrative voice… There is something truly humbling about trying to compete with that voice. Jonas begins the book with his “Last Will and Testament” and goes on to explain why he is writing this Will as a ten year old:

“I am living in rue Cuvier now because Signor Corrado brought me to see the Professor yesterday. He fixed it up for me to come here and be safe. So far, I have been safe in this house for one day.”

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to readers that Jonas has been separated by his family who have been rounded up by the Nazis. Jonas’ journey into hiding has taken him through a circus, into the arms of some simply wonderful characters and finally to the safely of the Professor who we discover was Jonas’ mother’s music teacher when she was younger.

What struck me about this book was the wonder that was woven into such a terrifying period of our history. Jonas finds safety in such unusual places and the innocence with which he perceives his experiences is both refreshing and sad.

While this book didn’t touch me in the same way that Leon Leyson’s memoir did, I still think it’s an incredibly valuable young adult book about life during this period. If you’re a fan of good YA historical fiction, I highly recommend this book and I will certainly be on the lookout for more books by the stellar Mary Finn.

Alice Hoffman, Fortune’s Daughter

download (1)The problem with reading so voraciously and not reviewing so efficiently is that one forgets and that is exactly what has happened with this book which I read such a long time ago and then forgot about … And yes, I’ve forgotten the intricacies of this tale and the details of the action and much of the drama and to make up for it I’ve had to read the reviews of others – something that I try not to do. What I do remember is Hoffman’s beautiful prose, the soft language and the beauty of her intense and rich characters.

This is a novel about two women whose lives come together in the strangest of circumstances. It is a novel about how people deal with loss and tragedy and indeed, about how they recover.

I am an enormous Hoffman fan, as I have mentioned elsewhere, and I always jump at an opportunity to fall into her prose.

If you want a more thorough review of this book, I recommend the New York Times whose reviewer is clearly more organised than I am!

Saeed Fassaie, Rising From the Shadows

Rising Above The Shadows_cover_artworkI have a confession. I only borrowed this book from the library because it was endorsed by Dr Charlie Teo whose words grace the cover: “Every politician, every soldier, every doctor, every social worker, every refugeee, every school child … actually, every Australian needs to read this book.”

I’m not a politician, nor am I a solder or a doctor or social worker. I am also no longer a school child. I am, however, an Australian who has enormous respect for Dr Charlie Teo. So, I read this book. I read it over the course of a day and it is still unfolding in my mind in the aftermath of this reading.

There is no doubt in my mind that Saeed Fassaie is a great man. He is eloquent, educated, tenacious and ambitious. His story exposes him as brave and stubborn and righteous. He has staunch morals and isn’t afraid to stand up for his beliefs. In short, he is the type of person of whom we should all be in awe.

On the surface, Fassaie’s story is fascinating – his involvement in Iranian politics, his relationship with the youth around him and his time spent serving in the military fighting a war that he perceived as futile, led by a government who stood for nothing that had any value for Fassaie. However, what is far more striking are the philosophical insights that he provides throughout his memoir, insights that are explored through conversations he has with various people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or a woman he encounters in Hungary. It is these insights and observations, this questioning, which allow readers to truly appreciate the complexity and sensitivity of this man who is so torn by his country and his need to be true to himself.

I found this book valuable for so many different reasons. In some ways it reminded me of Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Teheran’ while in other ways the male narrative voice provided a totally alternate view of life in Iran. I found myself intrigued by Fassaie’s military service set against the background of his pacificism and his questioning of the value of religion, his desire to know and appreciate all that lay beyond the borders of Iran, and his willingness to embrace different social systems and then abandon the once he understood their flaws.

So much of Iran’s history has happened behind closed doors and both Nafisi and now Fassaie have provided valuable explorations of all that often remains hidden.

Where Fassaie’s book diverges is in his personal experience of mental illness and how that experience colours his emigration to Australia. For me this provided another dimension to this memoir, making it more personal and less political. I found myself developing a greater sense of empathy with Fassaie as a narrator and this allowed me to reconsider some of his earlier descriptions of experiences while he lived in Iran.

I commend Saeed Fassaie on his courage in writing this memoir. It can’t have been an easy task and it is well worth reading – both to appreciate the beauty of Iran and its people and to listen to a great man tell his story.

Mean Streak, Sandra Brown

downloadNothing beats a rainy night, a warm blanket and a good thriller! It’s a winning combination! Even more exciting since it’s been a while since I read an ‘I can’t put you down’ thriller. And that is exactly what this was. I read it cover to cover over 4 or 5 hours. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak to anyone. I could barely break to refill my cup of tea.

If you are after a fantastic escape then this is it!

The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman

pissarro-3Reading this book was like crawling into a painting and having the colours wash over you as you sleep. It was positively dreamy. Jodi Piccoult’s comment on the book’s cover is: “Hoffman reminds us with every sentence that words have the power to transport us to alternate worlds” and this is exactly what this book did.

I knew nothing about the book before I picked it up. I knew only that I was a Hoffman fan, despite not having read ‘The Dovekeepers’ – her books had not yet disappointed me, each of them so different, tiny worlds, unique and perfect. I had no background to the text and I read it like a piece of fiction.

It was only toward the end when I came to the ‘Afterword’ that it became apparent that this book was faction, based on the life of the famous artist, Camille Pizzarro. Rather than feel disappointed with this realisation, as I was with Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Lacuna’, this knowledge simply opened up another world that I felt motivated to explore. It made the book more magical.

There is so much to love about this book. The prose is divine; rich and layered, magnificent descriptions of places and colours and hues – “the air was spicy with the scent of the bay trees as we walked together…” The poetic majesty of Hoffman’s writing is established early on in this tome:

“Heat was the core of our lives, a shape-shifter that never was too far from the door. It made me want to step out of my clothes and dive into another life, one where there were linden trees and green lawns, where women wore black silk dresses and crinolenes that rustled when they walked, a country where the moon rose like a silver disc into a cold, clear sky.”

The setting is intriguing – a small Jewish community in the Virgin Islands with the backdrop of the American Civil War and slavery. The role of religion in manufacturing ties amongst this community is fascinating and I found it intriguing to note the intersection between African and French influences in this context.

There is also love and complex social restrictions and a great gender divide and books and libraries – “I disappeared into that cool, shuttered room whenever I could”. The burden of a nation’s history and narrative is buried in every character’s actions:

“We were meant to be mice, to go unnoticed so that we would not bring hatred upon our people, who had been so ill-treated in every nation. But I was not a mouse. In the field where I walked, I was much more interested in the actions of hawks.”

Even more, this is a book about rebellion – “I rarely did as I was told” – and passion and commitment. It is a book about connections between people and places and the tenacity that it takes for individuals to know what they want and to fight for that. And it is a book about beauty, stark natural magnificence that cannot be contained in Hoffman’s words, nor in Pizzarro’s paintings.

But mostly, this is a book about being human and what that means. About loving and losing and still loving. It is about giving and forgiving and never forgetting. It is a book that reminds us all about why we love to read.

Leon Leyson, The Boy on the Wooden Box

download (1)I have read a great many books about The Shoah – The Holocaust – World War II. I’ve studied the period from an historical period, I’ve read memoirs and poetry, I’ve seen paintings. I’ve watched documentaries about Hitler, about the camps, about the German people. I’ve visited museums in New York, Washington, Sydney and of course, Yad Vashem, in Israel. I’ve done courses at university, with experts. I’ve swum the deep, dark ocean of this period until I thought I could swim no more and then I stopped. For the longest time I just couldn’t. I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t think anymore. I couldn’t breath the fumes of this period. I was done. I had drowned in the Holocaust.

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That was quite some time ago and the self imposed silence has left me with a renewed passion for different expressions and perspectives about this time. I have been fascinated by writers like Caroline Moorehead, whose book ‘A Train in Winter‘ will never leave me. I was intrigued by the film ‘Life is Beautiful’ – that humour and life could exist in the midst of this darkness – and more recently, by the words of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer as recorded by Sara Yocheved Rigler in her book ‘Holy Woman‘. A survivor of Auschwitz, the Rebbetzin was adamant that “Aushwitz was not a bad place … A bad place is where Jews can observe mitzvot (commandments from God), but don’t do them.” I struggle to comprehend the depth of her faith. It’s not something I will ever be great enough to embrace.

In all my trawling of Holocaust texts and expression, while I am always humbled by people like Rebbetzin Kramer and others who manage to rise above the tragedy and the incomprehensible inhumanity, I can’t remember ever encountering a book like ‘The Boy on the Wooden Box’ by Leon Leyson. In the past, Holocaust accounts have shocked me, they have numbed me, they have stunned me and they have left me in awe; but never have they reached into me, touched my heart and left me breathless. Never have I felt so utterly honoured to be allowed into the world of a survivor.

Leyson’s memoir is like a light passing through a crystal that stuns you momentarily, leaves you blinking and then blinds you with rays of colours. As I read his words, I found myself needing to know him, needing to know that he was still alive and that I might, by some small chance, have the opportunity to meet him, to sit in the dust at his feet and hear his voice tell his story. When I discovered that he had died before he knew that this book was to be published I was overwhelmed by such deep sadness because it was so clear to me that his was a voice that should never die. Here was a great man who spent so many years of his life in silence and then found his voice and devoted himself to educating the world about all that he had witnessed. Once he started, Leyson never stopped telling his story and honouring all of those whose voices were snuffed out by Hitler’s campaign against the Jews and those he deemed not pure enough to live in his world.

There were many things that startled me about this book and I won’t go into them in detail because, quite simply, you all need to read this book. You owe it to Leon and his family to know his story as he tells it. What I will share is this: Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. I heard many fascinating speakers and was suitably entertained by their wit and the extent of their varied acccomplishments. One of the stand out writers and speakers was Jennifer Teege. In her 20’s Teege, a Black German woman, discovered that her grandfather was none other than the Nazi Amon Goeth. This meant nothing more to me than what Teege explained in her talk – I hadn’t read the book, I knew nothing about Teege and I had never encountered Goeth in my Holocaust travels. Teege spoke magnificently and bravely about how her life was impacted by her discovery of her grandfather’s identity. She spoke about the journey she had to make to survive this discovery and how important Hollywood films like Schindler’s List are to educating the world about the Holocaust.

I’ve never seen Schindler’s List – it came out in my silent period when I couldn’t bear to know any more than I already did. But Teege mentioned the film and she mentioned that her grandfather was the Nazi who played opposite Schindler. I paid the comment very little attention at the time; however, in reading Leyson’s book, I gained a whole new perspective into the true tragedy of Teege’s heritage.

Leyson mentions Goeth frequently. Readers can feel him quake as he holds his breath when Goeth comes near. He recounts countless instances where he was almost killed by Goeth’s fleeting whims of cruelty. The shudder that lies beneath Leyson’s descriptions gave me a deeper appreciation for the depression which Teege suffered when she learned about her grandfather.

At yet, here was Teege, a majestic woman who spoke so passionately about Israel and about the need to keep telling the story. How I wished that Leon Leyson had lived long enough to meet Jennifer Teege.

There are many great people in this world. Many voices that are worth hearing. In my journey through ‘The Boy on the Wooden Box’ I feel as though I have come to know a few more of these voices. Leon Leyson was the youngest person on Schindler’s List. It is because of Oskar Schindler that Leon, two of his siblings and his parents survived the Holocaust and lived on to create new lives for themselves far away from the horrors of Poland and Europe.

Oskar Schindler, I thank you for saving Leon. I thank you for allowing his voice to live on and his story to be told. I am humbled by your courage and by your ability to stand before monsters like Amon Goeth and play the charade which led you to save all of those people who made it on to Schindler’s List. It is apt that you are buried in Jerusalem on Mount Herzl, the Mount of Remembrance, Israel’s national cemetary, along with so many other heroes of the Jewish people.

Leon Leyson, I cannot begin to convey how honoured I am that you chose to share your story and that I was lucky enough to read it. Yours is the voice that I will carry with me as I move through the world.